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A change of plan.

 

 

Cusco has been very bad for Robin’s waistline. She pulls out of the city groaning under the weight of 30 balls of baby alpaca yarn, a bag of striped fabric, five reels of woollen braid, an alpaca scarf and a handwoven lambs wool blanket. The blanket is particularly special and particularly bulky, lending unwanted love handles on Robin’s already ample sides.

We take a collectivo packed with people out of Cusco for the morning and up in to the surrounding hills and valleys to a small town called Chinchera. The beautiful, sparse landscape patched together in golds, terracotta and greens hangs beneath the undiluted blue sky and the sun is bright enough to stitch a crease in your forehead and tuck a pain in to your temples. Chinchero is quiet, nearly empty of people but for a few women toddling about hefting great weights in their blankets or tending to grilled sausages on the street.

We walk down the high street wondering if we have come to the right place, there isn’t a hint of the place we are looking for in sight. We stop to ask a friendly lady on a corner where the weaving centre is and she points up the street then behind her and then to the right explaining ‘it’s up there’ and some other things I fail to catch. We smile broadly and thank her then set off hesitatingly to the right wondering what she meant. Fortunately for us, the trinity of locations needs no explanation because we find what we are looking for just around the corner.

The Centre For Traditional Textiles has no trumpets and fanfares, just a small, blue sign announcing, in English, that you have arrived. We walk cautiously through the open door and step in to a grassy courtyard filled with women in great, tumbling black skirts and hand stitched, red jackets. They are all wearing peculiar hats like inverted fruit bowls and, without exception, have long, glossy, black plaits falling down their backs. They sit in small groups on the grass with backstrap looms belted about their waists and tied to a stake around which they position themselves as if they were the spokes on a bicycle.

They turn in unison and offer us toothy smiles.

 

Buenos dias!

 

They chorus and the welcome encourages us in a little.

 

Come in come in!

 

They say.

 

Have a look about.

 

Each looms is made of six pieces of wood arranged in a complicated fashion along a beautiful, hand spun warp of alpaca or sheep’s wool. One end of the warp ties to the stake and is held in place in an even row by the first piece of wood. The other end is wrapped in increments around another piece of wood in front of the weaver as the weft is woven through it turning it from mere yarn to richly patterned, striped, gorgeous fabric. The other four pieces of wood hold alternate threads up or down depending on what patterns the weaver wishes to conjour to the surface.

The weaving they produce is mostly in deep, velvety reds, greys, browns and mossy greens and the occasional placid blue. Amongst the stripes of colour there are stylised condors, snakes, vicuña, alpaca and toads woven in to the pieces and interlocking patterns picked out in little knots of jewely colour. The shop is dimly lit and stacked with blankets, shawls and scarves. There are baskets of knitting too, socks, gloves and hats and everything is made from this gorgeous wool; heavy, slinky and lustrous and intricately worked by hands endowed the easy skill born of a lifetime of making. The place smells of wood and hay and faintly of the sweet smell of livestock. We wander quietly, riffling through the beautiful layers of fabric while a majestically dressed woman in glasses follows at a polite distance, coolly appraising us as we subtly check the price tags.

These works of art are not cheap. Rightly so, really. The yarn is one hundred percent natural, hand spun, hand dyed in natural colours. The dyes are made from plants and minerals which are gathered by hand and processed in the surrounding villages in small batches. Each piece is woven painstakingly by hand over several weeks so the hefty price tag should be expected. It isn’t, however. We have got used to rock bottom Peruvian prices where a two course lunch will set you back a quid or two and a hotel room might cost you a tenner a night outside Cusco. Here at the textiles centre, we’re staring down at dollar signs with three numbers after them.

We go outside to think about whether or not we can really justify spending our money here or not. An older lady spots us and strolls over and gestures at the low, wooden bench.

 

Sit down. Relax!

 

She says and unwraps a big blanket stuffed full of her own weavings.

 

I’ve got belt, I’ve got braids….got some scarves. All natural, not that synthetic stuff in town. Got some more scarves….

 

The soft, woollen scarves are woven in the natural, undyed fibres so pale greys sit beside chocolate browns and beiges. They are lovely but not what we are after.

 

Got some…..more braids. Got this…that’s all dyed with flowers and plants.

 

She says and we both say wow at the same time. She has pulled out a big, square blanket in heavy, tightly woven sheep’s wool. It is a fantastical array of colours running right through the rainbow in neat bands. She points carefully to the individual colours, bending over the blanket to see properly.

 

The yellow is from flowers, the red is cochineal beetles, the blue is indigo….the green is a type of leaf…

 

I look at Jamie. He stares down at the lovely, muted rainbow spread out in front of us and nods.

 

I really like that one…

 

He says and I look at him with an ‘oh no what are we doing’ face then ask the weaver how much it is. The price is 1200 Sol or about £240. I swallow and sit back. Seriously, we can’t pay that for a small blanket. The lady looks at us and smiles.

 

You can have it for a thousand….special price.

 

She says.

 

Oh! Oh…it’s so lovely.

 

I whine.

The centre was opened ten years ago when a few smart folk realised that the fiercely proud and independent people of the Chinchero region were losing their weaving skills and traditions to cheaply produced, garish tat for backpackers. The tourists just wanted something easy, cheap and vaguely Inca-ish to take home so that’s what the artisans gave them. Brightly coloured, synthetic yarn was replacing traditionally spun and dyed natural fibres and the complicated, skilled woven pieces were being phased out in favour of easy to produce belts and trinkets. The answer to the problem was to encourage the women to keep up the old ways by giving them a centre to work from and then educate the tourists about the value of these skills. Once people know what is being spread out before them on a table and the work that goes in to them, they will pay the prices. And here we are, sitting in the bright courtyard, breathing in the sharp, thin air and gazing at our technicolour dreamblanket trying to reconcile paying this much money for what is essentially a jazzed up tablecloth with the centuries of knowledge and skill that have gone in to making it.

 

Will you take 800?

 

I ask. The words fall out of my face as if put there by someone else and I feel momentarily betrayed by them.

She thinks for a moment, takes out a calculator and taps some numbers in then stares at the screen. After a moment she straightens up and looks at me.

 

850.

 

And we have done a deal. Oh god, we have done a deal. The lovely blanket is folded and put in a bag and we hand over what is a large amount of money for us but must be a fortune for her. She thanks us and pulls out another bag.

 

Wait! A present for you. Choose one.

 

She says and presents us with a little pile of friendship bracelets and ties our choices on to our wrists tightly then grins at us and sending us on our way. We are a little dazed by the sudden lightness of our wallet but the blanket keeps us steadily weighted to the ground and we shuffle around the courtyard again to watch the weaving, trying not to think about what we have just done.

Two women are sitting on the ground, masses of thick skirt fabric swathed around them. They each sit patiently beside a stake positioned a couple of metres apart from one another and stuck in to the ground. They wind a huge ball of wool around their respective stake and then throw the ball to the other who does the same and throws the yarn back again. I realise they are making the warp for a piece of weaving, which is the threads that make up the length of the fabric before the warp is woven crossways in to it. It’s rather mesmerising watching them loop and throw, loop and throw.

 

What are they doing?

 

Murmurs Jamie watching the ball of yarn bounce back and forth. I explain to him and he nods thoughtfully as we walk away and I can see he wants to go back and watch some more. We take some photos of the regally clad ladies as they chatter amongst themselves and I find myself gazing at their beautiful handmade jackets and wondering if they are available to buy. It’s at this point we decide it’s probably for the best if we leave this place immediately before we are hypnotised in to any more expensive purchases. We thank the weavers who smile and say goodbye to us and before we leave I remember to ask our lady how to say ‘buenos dias‘ in Quechua which is the mother tongue of all these women. She tells me three times and I eventually stumble through the long phrase to her satisfaction but forget it by the time we reach the street. It looks unlikely that I will conversing fluently with these artisans in their own language anytime soon however much I might want to.

Fortunately for me, where we’re going they speak Aymara so I won’t need to. We set out early from Cusco, slipping and bumping about on the cobbles and groaning up the hills. Robin is outraged by the new weight we have padded her out with and not as cooperative as she should be, panting in the high altitude air and gobbling fuel. The good news for her is that we are leaving the delights of Peruvian textiles for Bolivia where decent, handmade crafts are harder to come by and electric shocky, synthetic socks with llamas on are the most popular offering. We reach the main boulevard out of town, passing a huge statue of an eagle spreading its wings wide in the morning sunshine and soon, the city is behind us. The road unravels ahead of us, steering us on a course towards Lake Titicaca, a gorgeous stretch of water dotted with islands and full of gleaming trout that sits atop the border to Bolivia.

The landscape here is huge, never ending. Great, dusty plains shaded in dusky, warm hues and populated by petulant flocks of llamas. We get hungrier and hungrier but there are no shops, no restaurants for miles and miles, just the occasional mechanic and crumbly looking hamlets. Hours pass staring out in to the distance and reading the slogans political parties paint all over any standing structure in sight. Alan Keiko for President. It is written everywhere in large, blood red letters. I find myself subconsciously rooting for him, my brain taken in by the repetition and it’s only later I find out that there is no Alan Keiko. Keiko Fujimori is a woman and she’s not called Alan. The graffiti remains cryptic and I wonder if it does so with the average under educated hamlet dweller out here in nowhereland.

By 2pm, all thoughts of Peruvian politics has completely abated. We have had nothing to eat all day and lunch is about the only thing on my mind. Miles and miles of nothingness stretch out around us and it’s only by luck that we spot a small eatery surrounded by sheep. We pull in and are greeted by a savvy looking lady in plaits and two young men chewing on hunks of meat. They nod at us and stare at the bike, clearly wondering what breed of idiots we are out here on this grubby behemoth.

The lady sits us down and tells us the menu.

 

I’ve roast lamb and potatoes.

 

She says, pointing at the sheep milling about the place then looking at us waiting for our choice.

 

I think we’ll have the lamb then please.

 

I reply, hoping I have chosen wisely.

And its turns out that I have. Before long two small bowls are brought out with three big, golden potatoes boiled in their skins topped precariously with great hunks of warm, salt lacquered lamb. We eat with delight, spooning a delicious brown spicy sauce over the meat and sipping hot cups of mate gazing in to the far away distance. The lady chats to a friend in the road, stopping occasionally to energetically swing a piece of rope around her head and hurl it at an errant sheep. It’s quite wonderfully foreign and I am a little disappointed when we climb back on to Robin and scare the sheep as we roar away waving.

Titicaca appears at first as an indigo streak on the horizon and as we get nearer, the deep blue pales and the sun sparks off the water electrically. Great swathes of reeds crowd the waters edge and beyond them, tiny fields tended by cardiganned ladies. The villages are built from adobe bricks made from earth dug from the ground nearby which means the dusty ground and houses merge in to one another, punctuated by billowing laundry and tethered livestock chewing fervently at the low greenery in the fields. The sun is shining on the huge, open slice of landscape, sharpening edges and making the colours zip and ping against my retinas.

We cross the border without fuss. We know what we are doing now that we have done this ten times and we slip through like a fish. As we walk away from the office, tucking documents back in to our jacket, all eyes in the enormous queue of backpackers follow us with undisguised curiosity. Having been in their position at this very border two years ago, I feel a little smug as their heads turn to follow me as I swing my helmet and my trousers swish loudly in the quiet room. I feel none of the strange disconnect of getting on a bus and being let out the other side in unfamiliar surroundings. I have watched every single mile slip past us, smelt the turned soil, inhaled the scent of the sea, the coming rain. I have grimaced at the warm stink of every piece of road kill, watched birds stop and somersault in mid air at the sight of us and plucked bees from my lap as they divebomb through the perfumed air. I might be a strange sight in my filthy jacket and hand coloured helmet but I have every image bouncing so vividly around my skull that its worth the aching knees, the weird appearance, the naked stares of the people we pass.

 

Thank you! Safe journey.

 

Says the man who gives us our temporary bike importation and we drive away from him and the rucksacked crowds and in to a new country.

 

So this is Bolivia!

 

Says Jamie, as is his custom in a new country.

This is indeed Bolivia, where I started my journey two years ago. I am anxious to finally take Jamie to see the Isla Del Sol, an island in the lake not far from where we are now and one of the best places I visited. Terraced by the Incas, striped in red and pale, luminous green mineral deposits and the air fragranced with eucalyptus, the place is rather magical and unlike anywhere else I had been before. I am even going to take Jamie back to the same hostel with its cozy, little rooms, wide open views of the lake and toothy, snow capped mountains in the distance. I have told him about it in great detail, how nice the hostel is, how fabulous the view, how cheap the rooms. Sure the place is touristy and the locals correspondingly quiet, a little distant and uninterested in the backpackers but it’s spectacular, really, it is.

We take the boat out the next morning and freeze quietly in the chilly air. We are at nearly 4000 metres and though the sun pounds down with a ferocity that bloodshots your eyes and burns the tips of your ears in minutes, the breeze licks snowily at the nape of your neck and makes you shiver. We watch as the mainland recedes and the island slowly draws in to focus, shivering in the cold wind. The boat pulls in an hour later to the town of Yumani where donkeys nibble at the grass and a selection of dogs wander about the place searching for scraps amongst the crowds. A man takes 5 Bolivianos from each arrival which supposedly goes towards the upkeep of the island’s core facilities but which, in reality probably ends up deep in some canny VIP’s pockets, such is the way of things here in Bolivia.

There are no vehicles on the island, there would be no point. It is craggy, wild and steep, the villages built on steps and squeezed in to bays. To get to where we are going, we have to climb a 206 steps built by the Incas which take us up the side of the island to Hostel Inti Wayra. We start the climb and within ten steps, the thin air has me gasping for breath as though I had been running for my life. I always imagined that breathing in high altitude would be a struggle, you would need to work to suck in the air, perhaps wheezing a little. It’s not like that though, you don’t even notice when you are standing still, everything feels normal but start to climb or run and it’s like you take your body by surprise.

 

Up we go.

 

You say to yourself, thinking well this is easy…perhaps I am fitter than I….

Then it hits you. It’s like your body suddenly runs out of oxygen and your muscles sing and your lungs grab at the air, sucking it in but it’s not enough, there’s not enough air for you.

 

Gimme some air!

 

They shriek and you stare out across the lake, your rucksack lying on the floor beside you with little spots dancing in your vision, heaving embarrassingly. Then all of a sudden, you’re fine again and off you go, bounding up those stone steps feeling on top of things before you crash and burn six steps later and have to sit on a wall to recover.

It took me well over an hour the last time I climbed these steps but I had had several glasses of red wine the previous night and had woken up with altitude sickness that worsened over the day. On wobbling legs, feeling sick to my stomach and I ascended step by step before collapsing in my bed shivering with cold despite the hot day and sleeping for an hour. This time we are there in twenty minutes, gasping for breath but trying to hide it as we pass the towns people who were born for this height and skip about as if on moonboots.

 

Chicos, are you looking for a room? We have rooms.

 

Says a voice and I look up to see a familiar face. One of the sons of the family who owns the hostel is looking down at us from the patio beckoning us in.

 

Yes…we’re already coming….here…

 

I gasp and the face nods and disappears. We climb the last bit of cobbled, wonky path and pause outside to furiously inhale the thin air for a moment so as not to appear too embarrassingly out of breath.

The son and his wife sit in plastic chairs looking out over the village and at the huge, silvery sweep of lake water stretching to the snow capped Andes in the distance. We cut a deal for a five night stay and are please with our penny wise thrift until we work out that, in fact, we have been charged the normal price having haggled down from a much inflated rate.

 

Never mind!

 

I say, lightly, just pleased to be here. Our room is painted in a rosy, glowing pink and we have somehow nabbed the biggest bathroom. Jamie does his best to sound positive.

 

Yeah it’s nice. I mean, pretty low key but I can see why you liked it….

 

He says, looking round.

 

Yeah, I mean…it’s basic but you know..it’s cosy and it has a great view!

 

I say pulling aside the curtain to reveal a stunning view behind a window mended with cellotape. We nod appreciatively at the lake and then the curtain falls down. I say ‘curtain’ but it’s more a blanket, really. A blanket which has been nailed in to the wall. The plaster has fallen out around the nails though so when I say ‘nailed’ in to the wall, I really mean ‘balanced with great delicacy in the wall’

And the smell. Yes, when I think about it, I remember the smell. Something about the bathroom, the pipes. I don’t know. It’s not overpowering but neither is it ignorable and come to think of it, quite unpleasant really. It gets in to everything over the course of a few days, a little like the cold at night. There are blankets and covers on the beds but the rooms are unheated and it is chilly here when the sun sets. Yes, that reminds me, low water pressure and electric showers here too. Desperate to warm up I jumped in the shower last time I was here only to mildly electrocute myself on the crazy electric showerhead and freeze in the low, fizzing piddle of water that came out. At least it was hot though, so hot it burnt my skin on the four square inches that it hit. This time, I turn on the tap to discover the water is lukewarm and will remain so for four days.

 

It’s a nice bright room though isn’t it? And we only paid a tenner a night for it!

 

I chirrup brightly at Jamie who smiles and admirable smile and unpacks the food we have brought.

Now I think about it, a tenner a night must be a really good amount of money for these people. It’s not very much for us really but here, a tenner goes a long, long way. I look at the big cracks in the walls and note that, were it not for us nicking off with some towels upstairs, they would not have been included. And there’s no toilet roll. Nor will there be for the duration of our stay. We must buy our own. Not a soul enters the room while we are here to empty the bin, to change the towels or to suddenly think ‘well gosh, we forgot to give them toilet paper’.

Nonetheless I remain placidly optimistic even when the battle axe mother of the family knocks on our door and insists we haven’t paid and I suddenly remember her doing the same thing the last time I was here. I fend her off but a feeling later bubbles inside me which, at first, I can’t place. Only later, after two or three days of the family barely acknowledging our existence and the all pervasive smell of the toilets finally causing lasting damage to my olfactory sensors do I place it. I feel sad. Not only sad but disappointed. My lively little brain has done a number on me. My memories of this place are of happy, freedom filled days sitting on the terrace looking at the lake and skipping about the island. The reality, I remember now, jogged by the stink, was long, lonely days writing furiously in my diary about how long and lonely my days were and the odd spell of knitting in the sunshine and trying to avoid my room.

I feel like I have deceived Jamie.

 

It’s basic but it’s really nice and it has the best views and it’s really cheap!

 

I said to him. And I was right, it does have a nice view and it is basic but it’s not really nice and we are paying what actually amounts to a large sum of money in these parts to be totally ignored unless someone gets their wires crossed and comes to shout at us for not paying.

The fortunate thing for me is that the island is as beautiful as I remember it. Lonely and sparse, dry as a bone and screened in glorious Technicolor, it burns itself on to your retinas so that you see against your eyelids when you lie in bed in the dark. The lake, visible wherever you are, sings a beautiful, blue siren’s song luring you down, desperate to swim in it’s startlingly clear depths. It’s freezing cold though and not a soul takes the leap, not even the children.

The landscape dives and rolls, corrugated in to tight, steep hills coloured in low, sage greens, emberous reds and electric greys. Where the land banks down to the water and is submerged, a searing green lake weed adheres in a thin, luminous band to the rocks. Herbs and wiry little shrubs cling to the pockets of earth amongst the stones to be chomped at by passing donkeys and the occasional llama. High on the spine of the island, long, slender eucalyptus trees rustle in the breezey silence dropping their curved, leathery leaves to the ground where they turn pink and snap underfoot.

At night, I take Jamie to a restaurant in the woods which is lit only by candles. We sit under the dimly lit wooden rafters eating homemade pizzas and watching a fabulous, red hot sunset crackle on the horizon. It’s all perfect, or rather it should be perfect but we are twitchy, a little distractable. We take long walks in and out of the folds in the rock, over the bald hilltops and down in to the bays. We pick up pretty, rusting enamel plates from stream beds and ferret them in our rucksacks. We visit the ruins of an Inca settlement. But I can’t concentrate on it this time and Jamie is busy inside his head as he walks next to me. He is forming a plan.

 

We have two weeks until we have to be in Santa Cruz for Christmas right?

 

He says, one afternoon. Our friend Gary and his wife Jen are heading back to his parent’s house in Bolivia for Christmas and have invited us to join them.

 

Right.

 

I reply absently poking at some bird bones lying in the shrubbery.

 

Well, what if we were to ride to Santiago in Chile to see the sights, drop the bike off to be sent home and then come back to Bolivia for Christmas?

 

He suggests.

 

It would be nice to see a bit of Chile and we could avoid all the bad roads in Bolivia.

 

He adds, as though Santiago were a Sunday jaunt and not almost two and a half thousand kilometres away. Nonetheless, my ears prick up. It sounds a little bit like an adventure. Might this cure the malaise?

We have already discussed Chile and Argentina. The original plan was to drive right to the bottom then back up to Buenos Aires to send the bike home. This, however, is another 9000 km on top of our existing 28,000 and we have begun to wonder if this is more than we are actually willing to do. A spot of English drizzle, a mug of tea and an evening in the pub have taken on an almost religious significance to me and I am reluctant to admit it to myself but I don’t think I really want to drive that far. I think, whisper a small voice in my head,  I think I want to go home.

 

Ok then, let’s go to Chile!

 

I say to Jamie who looks a little surprised at my ready answer.

 

Yeah, let’s go to Chile! We wouldn’t have seen it otherwise!

 

So that’s what we do. We trade our final night’s payment for a boat journey on the hostel boat back to Copacabana, we pick up the bike from it’s hiding place in a hotel carpark and we hit the road. Robin sets a course for Peru where we confuse the border officials who swear we have just been here haven’t we? and head for the Chilean border. Such is our enthusiasm for the new plan, we take a small road which turns out to be unpaved for 50 miles and are forced to turn around and take a 500 mile detour. Robin may be gnarly but she’s a carrying a bit too much weight for these dusty, gravel and rock strewn roads and we simply can’t face four hours of extra riding at 13 miles an hour.

Two days later we arrive at a neat,organised border with flowers growing in the car park and such a lack of disorganisation and the usual mind games that Jamie almost forgets his customary phrase. The roads are glossy and straight and there a big, shiny billboards announcing corporate chains. The houses are built neatly from bricks and cement with door numbers and street signs. We are temporarily knocked off kilter by it and ride with our mouths open just gazing upon the wealth.

 

So this is Chile!

 

Jamie finally remembers.

 

It’s so wealthy!

 

I yip guiltily, ashamed by my pleasure at the sight of crappy shopping malls and Subway outlets after months of lack. It feels, sadly, more like home.

We stop to buy some lunch in a huge supermarket around which we stumble, eyes glazed and brains stuttering at the enormous quantity of stuff available to buy. Laptops, cherries, bras, chewing gum, cd players, goats cheese! Jamie appears clutching a box containing a replacement for our tyre pump with his eyes twinkling with the pleasure of finding a useful item with such ease. I buy Jamie a pizza flavoured sandwich and revel in some tuna mayonnaise, a hard to buy luxury for miles and miles of rice and meat.

The Atacama Desert stretches out in front of us, one of the most arid places on the planet and Santiago is 2000km away on the other side of it. We have no idea if we can freight the bike at such short notice or indeed if we can find anyone in Santiago to reliably do the deed without losing our bike in the sea. We don’t know how to get from Santiago to Santa Cruz or if it’s even possible this close to Christmas. But it’s an adventure and it’ll fall in to place somehow, it usually does.

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